[With the House Judiciary Committee holding a hearing underway on H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act, I’d like to share my thoughts on the bill on a more personal level.]
I’m passionate about the framework provided by copyright law because I am passionate about the expressive works that have been created in the US over the past 200 plus years because of this framework. From the silly to the sublime, to those that educate and those that entertain, these works have advanced our society, our culture, and our economy.
As a media and cultural consumer, I am excited by the increasingly innovative new ways I can access the news, movies, television shows, music, and other works I love online, and I strongly hope that those who create them can continue to create. I believe the Stop Online Piracy Act is both necessary and carefully crafted to ensure creators have effective recourse against sites that profit off misappropriation of their work.
Effective copyright protection, on a fundamental level, is a significant governmental interest, and one of the few enumerated powers of the federal government in the Constitution. In 1832, the Supreme Court said “To promote the progress of the useful arts is the interest and policy of every enlightened government.”1
Only two years later, Supreme Court Justice Thompson said in his dissent to the seminal opinion in Wheaton v. Peters, “In my judgment, every principle of justice, equity, morality, fitness and sound policy concurs, in protecting the literary labours of men, to the same extent that property acquired by manual labour is protected.”2
The history of copyright law presents a common theme of technological advancement bringing challenges to creators. In the past, we’ve seen these challenges with the introduction of new forms of media that allowed the recording of sound, images, and motion pictures; broadcasting in the form of radio and television; and even advancements in transportation that have made our world smaller and more connected. Today, creators face challenges to adapt to digital technologies and the Internet, which allows global communication on an unprecedented scale.
But no matter how rapidly technology advances, we should not lose sight of the fundamental principles of “justice, equity, morality, fitness and sound policy” that the protection of expression is built on.
In the words of James Madison, “The public good fully coincides” with “the claims of individuals” under copyright law.3 The introduction of new expressive works, whether in the form of books, music, films, television, or photographs, do much to advance this public good. They teach, entertain, and shed light on the human condition. So it is vitally important that those works are protected just as much online as they are offline.
The Internet today looks vastly different today than it did in 1998, when the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was enacted. There was no Google, no YouTube, and no Facebook. The technologies that make rich, fully-interactive sites like these possible simply didn’t exist at the time. It would be hard to imagine a world wide web like this today. Today’s web allows a myriad of ways for people to engage in communication, commerce, social networking, entertainment, and learning. This is possible because the technology behind the web continued to progress, rather than being frozen in place. The same should be true of copyright law.
The consensus is that the DMCA has generally worked well for copyright holders and service providers. Its safe harbors shield service providers from liability for material uploaded by users where the service provider doesn’t have knowledge that the material is infringing, doesn’t receive a direct financial benefit from the infringing activity where the provider has the right and ability to control the activity, and acts expeditiously to disable access to uploaded material when it receives a notification of claimed infringement.
These notice-and-takedown provisions can be more effective and efficient for removing infringing material than litigation. They work well, in other words, for good faith, legitimate service providers who cooperate with copyright holders to detect and deal with online infringement.
They should not, however, provide cover for service providers who deliberately set out to build sites based on infringement — where, for example, the site was primarily designed to have no other purpose than to engage in or facilitate infringing acts, the site operator has taken deliberate action to remain unaware of a high probability that the site is used for infringement, or the site operator has taken affirmative steps to promote the use of the site for infringing acts.
The DMCA safe harbors were crafted to provide legal certainty in the new online world and protect service providers from the risk of liability for inadvertent or incidental infringement that they aren’t aware of or can’t monitor or control. They certainly weren’t crafted to protect against those who actively and deliberately design and operate their sites to profit off piracy.
In practice, the DMCA notice-and-takedown provisions are ineffective against sites like this. Many creators would find it a full time job to send notices against these types of sites. And the provisions are especially ineffective against sites that are directed at and easily accessible by US residents but located outside the US and dismissive of US law.
Sections 102 and 103 of the Stop Online Piracy Act fill this gap by giving the Attorney General and copyright holders new tools that directly target rogue sites. The goal of this legislation is not to completely eradicate online piracy, or allow copyright owners to “go back to the way things were.” Piracy is inherently part of the copyright landscape, and it will always exist in some form or another.
The goal is rather to allow creators and legitimate intermediaries to continue to develop sustainable business models that allow both widespread dissemination of content and the ability to be remunerated for investing time and money creating that content. Obviously, one of the big challenges facing creators is figuring out these business models, but that doesn’t mean the law shouldn’t also play a role.
Nearly forty years ago, former Register of Copyrights Barbara Ringer delivered an essay at a time when Congress was in the midst of reforming the Copyright Act to ensure it would remain relevant in the information age. Like today, it was a time of rapid technological change, with new stakeholders emerging and contentious debate. But though the technologies and players were different, Ringer’s words remain just as relevant today:
If the copyright law is to continue to function on the side of light against darkness, good against evil, truth against newspeak, it must broaden its base and its goals. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are meaningless unless authors are able to create independently from control by anyone, and to find a way to put their works before the public. Economic advantage and the shibboleth of “convenience” distort the copyright law into a weapon against authors. Anyone who cares about freedom and authorship must insure that, in the process of improving the efficiency of our law, we do not throw it all the way back to its repressive origins in the Middle Ages.4
Copyright Law and Freedom of Expression
The introduction of the Stop Online Piracy Act has raised free speech concerns from various parties. It’s absolutely vital that the proposed bill — any bill for that matter — conforms with the First Amendment, which, I believe, it does. Noted First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams believes the bill is fully compatible with First Amendment protections as well, as he explained in a recent letter.
But it’s also important to keep in mind that copyright law itself serves an important role in furthering the goals of freedom of expression. This role has been recognized since the founding of the United States. As the Supreme Court said in Eldred v. Ashcroft, “the Framers intended copyright itself to be the engine of free expression.”5
Founding Father and second president John Adams once wrote, “Property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist.” Our fourth president, and the Father of the Constitution, James Madison added, “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.”
The Copyright Clause in the Constitution incorporates both these ideas, thus serving as a critical component in the protection of liberty. It gives Congress the power to secure to authors the exclusive rights in their writings in order to promote the progress of the useful arts and sciences. The importance of this power cannot be understated, and neither can the importance that these exclusive rights be truly secure in order to promote progress and spur diffusion of new expression.
That copyright law complements rather than conflicts with freedom of expression has been recognized many times since then.
For example, in an 1844 article appearing in The Reasoner magazine, the author writes: “If the public desire a really free press, they must not look to it as a source of taxation; and if they are anxious for truth, for elevated and elevating sentiments, for ideas matured by study and reflection, and an honest exposition of grievances, they must recognise original articles as property, and secure them against a plundering appropriation by a copyright.”
And in an 1880 treatise on the liberty of the press, the author characterizes the “valuable property in the hands of the author who composes and publishes his thoughts” as one of the forms “which the right of free speech and thought assumes.”
Perhaps the best examination of the complementary relationship between copyright and freedom of expression comes Barbara Ringer, who noted:
[I]t is important to recognize that the Statute of Anne of 1710, the first copyright statute anywhere and the Mother of us all, was enacted precisely because the whole autocratic censorship/monopoly/ licensing apparatus had broken down completely. As a result of the bloodless revolution taking place in the English constitutional system, basic individual freedoms, notably freedom of speech and freedom of the press, were becoming established under common law principles. The Statute of Anne marked the end of autocracy in English copyright and established a set of democratic principles : recognition of the individual author as the ultimate beneficiary and fountainhead of protection and a guarantee of legal protection against unauthorized use for limited times, without any elements of prior restraint of censorship by government or its agents.
She later observes, “It is striking that the second and third copyright statutes in the world — those of the United States of America and of France — were adopted immediately following the revolutions in those countries that overthrew autocratic government and were based on ideals of personal liberty and individual freedom.”
Prior restraint and censorship are antithetical to the First Amendment, but doing nothing in the face of rampant online piracy disgraces the goals of freedom of expression as well. The Stop Online Piracy Act helps secure creators’ rights online. Rogue sites jeopardize the ability of creators and firms to invest time and resources into creating new expression that advances society and culture. Current law is insufficient to address this harm; this bill would help restore the security of copyrights online.
The rule of law is one of the most central and vital aspects of a free society. The US Constitution guarantees fair and impartial proceedings, protects citizens from arbitrary and unequalapplications of law, and limits what the government can do before depriving someone of life, liberty, or property.
But like freedom of speech, the concept of due process encompasses more than just Constitutional limits. Due process requires that rights have effective remedies available. Doing nothing violates the spirit of the rule of law.
The Stop Online Piracy Act strikes the correct balance between giving copyright holders an effective process for addressing sites whose only purpose is profiting off of the misappropriation of their works and ensuring that legitimate site operators are not punished.
I looked at the process of SOPA in more detail in previous posts: providing a walkthrough, showing why the bill will hit what it aims at, how it complements the DMCA, and why it merely provides new remedies for existing liability.
Sections 102 and 103 of the Stop Online Piracy Act represent a good start for creators who have long noted the injustice of others profiting from online piracy and escaping liability. Web services who are acting legitimately and legally should welcome rogue sites legislation because effective protection of creative labor is vital to a functioning online marketplace, and a functioning online marketplace benefits us all.
With this bill Congress can help secure the exclusive rights of creators. Doing so not only protects creators but also ensures that the development of innovative and sustainable services for consumers to access and enjoy media and content can continue.